Text messages, emails, social media posts, instant messages—so much of our communication occurs via digital formats these days. Even for those of us who used to communicate primarily in face-to-face settings or via phone, basic communication skills can become less habitual and require some extra effort. Young professionals, whose communication skills developed largely in virtual contexts, often require training and coaching in skills that were once intuitive. Here are a few critical communication skills to practice and encourage in those you are mentoring and leading:
1) Smile. Of course, you do not need to smile throughout an entire conversation, but it is important to use facial expressions and body language that indicate engagement and interest. At the beginning or end of a conversation, this may include a strong handshake. Throughout the discussion, appropriately smiling, nodding, or leaning in during important points indicates you are listening.
2) Maintain eye contact. Digital communication allows for multi-tasking. An interruption while writing an email or a distraction while texting, seldom affect the quality of the interaction. However, in face-to-face communication, appearing distracted or allowing interruptions (like checking a text message!), indicates there are other more important priorities than what you are hearing. Maintaining eye contact and ignoring distractions around you shows the value you place on the person and conversation before you.
3) Pause. Often, while listening to others, we are already thinking of what we need to do next, or preparing our response to what they are saying. As soon as they stop talking (sometimes before!), we start sharing our perspectives. Make it a practice to allow a pause when others finish talking. You may discover they are only thinking and have something more to add. It also communicates that you are listening and absorbing what they are saying. As a result, they may feel comfortable sharing more in-depth information that you would miss out on otherwise.
4) Ask questions. Miscommunications are a frequent part of interacting with others. Usually, they result from insufficient information. Ask follow-up or clarifying questions to be sure you fully understand other perspectives and expectations. This is especially important in face-to-face communication since we cannot reread a conversation the same way we can a text message or email. Relevant and insightful questions also indicate your investment in the conversation and can help further the discussion!
As teachers, leaders, and parents, one of the best ways to help the young leaders and kids around us grow in their communication skills is to model them in our own lives. Practice these communication strategies and others consistently and make them a part of your expectations of those you lead. See the change that occurs as active and healthy face-to-face communication becomes the norm in your team, family, or work context!
Steven Covey’s comment toward the end of his book, First Things First, grips me: “I deeply believe that if we attend to all other duties and responsibilities in life and neglect the family it would be analogous to straightening deck chairs on the Titanic.” As I seek to parent my own daughters, mentor young leaders, and research and teach on generational trends, I am haunted by a sense that we spend a lot of time in our culture straightening deck chairs. I believe three factors contribute to our tendency to ignore or delegate what is most important in our lives. I sense the pull of these powerful forces in my own life, and see them in the lives of my family, friends, and people I interact with across the country as I travel and speak. So, what are they and how do we combat them to focus on what is most important?
The beauty of today’s technologically connected society is that I can easily keep up with my friends and family scattered across the country and globe. An unintended consequence of this connectivity, however, is that I am constantly witnessing what everyone else is doing. I see my friends whose kids are playing tennis, basketball, and soccer. I see other friends who have their kids in choir, gymnastics and dance. Other friends are at Disney World, while some are camping in tents at a State Park. Inevitably, I begin to compare my life (and my kids’ lives) with everyone else’s. Slowly, I can get pulled into the busyness of doing things because other people are doing them. I begin rearranging chairs.
Each family is unique. What mine is gifted and called to do might look very different from another family. In resisting the overwhelming pull of comparison, I must know what our mission statement is, what we are supposed to be focused on in this season of life. If my husband and I have not spent time in prayer and conversation about this, we become reactive rather than intentional. This fall, after praying, I rearranged my schedule to ensure quality time with my kids. We changed the time and place of family devotions to make sure they would happen regularly, and we set a time for evaluating the activities in our lives to be sure they were not overwhelming what is most important. In my family, we find it important to reevaluate our rhythms three times a year to be sure we are not falling into the trap of comparison and compromising what is most important.
Opportunities in our society today are abundant. If you want to learn to play piano, you can search for piano lessons online and easily find hundreds of options, including teachers coming to your home, piano studios, online courses, or YouTube videos. When I open my social media feed, local events are popping up for every age and interest. The temptation with opportunities is that they can be hard to pass up. Because something fun is happening or there is an opportunity to learn something or connect with someone, we can feel pressure to do so. This is not bad, but sometimes we can find ourselves busy with opportunities that are not our priorities. Just this week, I found myself in this position. I had scheduled every free window of time with wonderful activities and interactions. However, as I looked at my week, there was little quality time left over for me to spend with God, my kids, or my spouse. Knowing we all needed some time together, I said “no” to some great opportunities and said “yes” to time together for snuggles, stories, chores, games, and great conversation. I find these are often the moments when mentoring and discipleship happens, trust is built, and memories are made.
Author and speaker, Tim Elmore, delineates several parenting types in his book, Generation iY. One of them is the Dry Cleaner parent. He explains that this style of parenting entails dropping our kids off for other people to teach or raise, like we drop off our clothes to be cleaned. I think all of us can recognize that our kids can learn some things better from other people. What too often happens, however, is that we begin to delegate most of our parenting. We find ourselves in the role of chauffeuring our kids from activity to activity, sitting on the sidelines and watching them, but not actually teaching them ourselves. Some of this comes from insecurity. We trust a tutor, a coach, or a mentor to teach them better than we can. Ironically, the time we spend with our kids as we work on a project, wash dishes, bake a cake, clean the yard, or eat dinner will probably have a much more significant impact on their mental and emotional wellbeing and life skills than any number of programs or activities ever will. At some point, I must set aside my insecurities and embrace my role as a parent, knowing I won’t always do it perfectly, but I am the only one who can fill that role for my family and I am going to do it to the best of my ability.
Dr. Jolene Erlacher is a wife, mommy, author, speaker, college instructor and coffee drinker who is passionate about empowering the next generation of leaders for effective service!